Review: A powerful and devastating ‘Top Girls’ at ACT soars

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Marlene (Michelle Beck, right) and Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) look to find common ground in “Top Girls” at ACT San Francisco through Oct. 13th. (Kevin Berne photo)

There is an urgency to Mrs. Kidd as she blasts into the room to speak to the newly appointed boss, the supremely confident Marlene. And that urgency, inspired by societal conditioning that men have a right to the plumiest of plum jobs, causes some supreme groveling. Please, step aside so my husband can be whole. The humiliation he is suffering because he was passed over for a woman, surely, certainly she could understand. Right?

The power of the exquisite production of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls,” produced by American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, is the way it melds together a confounding act one brilliantly into act two. The first act, namely the second scene which is so radically different from the comically painful first, leaves for lots of head shaking through intermission. Yet with masterful directing strokes from Tamilla Woodard on the usual fantastic set design by Nina Ball, the entire production coheres with delicious sustenance, and by the end, you realize what a marvel the entire production has ultimately become.

The first scene delves deeply into a dinner party, but it’s no ordinary party. There is a lot of bread, wine trucked in by the case and some massive historic figures, all gathered here to celebrate the new promotion of Marlene (a fabulous turn by Michelle Beck). There is the feminist hero Pope Joan (a varied Rosie Hallett), the concubine turned Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (sharp Monica Lin), the fictional Patient Griselda (a dazzling Monique Hafen Adams) and 19th century explorer Isabella Bird (strong Julia McNeal). There is another, who singlehandedly gets laughs going in the most awkward of ways, the piercing Dull Gret, played hilariously by Summer Brown.

This scene that kicks off at the onset is full of personality. Their conversations are loaded with pith and merriment as the wine flows but becomes devastatingly dark as time and space march forward. It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the historical handcuffs of what it means to be a woman, and these figures find smiles through their own personal devastation. Daughters in this world are as worthless as dirt, only sons are acceptable. The way smiles are created through these circumstances defines humor – the joy found through crushing situations, that which allows us to survive unconscionable pain. Learning Latin for a woman is a privilege, forcible sex is accepted because a woman is property, the women conclude.

It’s this powerful first scene that seems wildly out of place when the next characters are introduced. This is where we meet Angie (an adventurous, committed turn by Gabriella Momah). She has plans to leave her quiet suburb and get to London to meet her aunt, whom she believes is her mother. This may or may not be rooted in truth, mostly because of the loathing she has for her mother Joyce (a fantastic Nafeesa Monroe, who doubles as the Waitress in the opening scene).

Marlene is powerful, a woman who had to claw and scrap in order to climb to the top of the corporate food chain. The interviews conducted by her surrogates, with the actors who have doubled out of their historic roles in the first scene, are wholly hilarious and raise a huge point. Women must be twice as talented and twice as driven in order to have half the opportunities as a man does. There is no time or patience for a weak resume, that thing needs to crush hard. After all, it’s telling when a woman feels the need to share the virtues of her youth in an interview. “Youngness runs in the family,” boasts an interviewee with nary a hint of irony.

The final denouement between Marlene and Joyce is all sorts of fabulous. There is clearly a strain on the two sisters with wildly divergent paths – one who wears comfortable jeans in the cramped apartment, and the other who rocks a power suit in a modern corporate office. This is where the power of Churchill’s writing soars to the heavens, a smorgasbord of words and ideas that rocket out of the passionate skills of Monroe and Beck. This scene more than any other, and the little morsel that follows, is what makes the play so powerful and honest. The wide and wild variations in the play’s style are stockpiled to create the total experience that is carried out of the theatre upon its conclusion.

The sobering statistics of what it takes for a woman, especially women of color, to bust through glass ceilings are posted in the show’s playbill. Whether it is Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom or our current disaster of a political climate in the United States, women have always been at the forefront of necessary societal change. There is certainly hope that the play at this time may double as some great foreshadowing a year away from a new presidency. Might we be on the cusp of this nation’s first woman president, maybe even a black woman president?

That might be a bit too much for a certain, very fragile male White House occupier to handle. And may we all be magically hit with a zillion shards of glass cascading down if it does.

One can certainly dream.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

American Conservatory Theater presents “Top Girls”
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
The Word: Churchill’s words soar, creating incredible acting opportunities for the talented cast. A necessary play at any time, but especially in our current, turbulent political climate.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Oct. 13th
The Geary Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $15 – $110
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org

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